Foodie Gifts

Cooking with Truffles: Valentine’s Vegetarian Menu

Washington-20120203-00746For any foodie on a mission to maximize his or her eating pleasure, Valentine’s Day presents a special challenge. The perennial question is, How do you hit a new high and top last year’s memory?

Truffles are often overlooked as the star attraction of a home-cooked meal because of their price tag. Back in the day, Brillat-Saverin described them as "the luxury of grands seigneurs and kept women" (also, perhaps, hinting at their aphrodisiac qualities). In all honesty, those qualities have yet to be scientifically confirmed, but I don't think anybody would deny the sensuousness of any truffle-specked dish…

The truth is, like many of you, I had never cooked with fresh truffles before. Truffle salt, yes. Truffle oil, yes. But not with fresh truffles. I decided to explore the possibilities and find a reasonably cost-effective way for me and my husband to indulge. I did a bit of research, and found out that this time of the year, we are primarily talking about winter black truffles of European origin (French or Italian). In the DC area, you can find them at Arrowine in Arlington (perhaps somewhere else as well), and online.

The cheapest source I found is Urbani truffles which also offers a wide variety of other truffle products (truffle paste, truffle oil, truffle butter, etc.) The smallest amount one can purchase is 1oz ($75), which happens to be enough to pull off a truffle dinner. I supplemented fresh truffles with white truffle oil, black truffle salt, and black truffle butter (which I made myself with the leftover truffle shavings). A nice local source of truffle salt is the Spice & Tea Exchange in Georgetown.

Given the fact that most Valentine's Day restaurant prix-fixe options run $60-90 per person, I felt like putting together the coveted truffle dinner was really no more extravagant than eating out (besides, my husband is vegetarian, which makes the choices rather limited). Another myth I wanted to debunk is that that cooking with truffles has to be complicated and time-consuming (stuffed pigeon breast with chanterelles and truffles, homemade puff pastry with braised sweetbreads and truffles all sound fantastic, but there are other delicious, easy and fast options). You don’t really want to spend the entire Valentine’s night in front of the stove, do you?

Washington-20120203-00760The theme I chose is "casual minimalist with a twist." No 10 or 20-step recipes, very few ingredients per dish, and simple preparation to showcase the truffles and keep the flavors subtle.

My truffles arrived via Fedex about 24 hours after I placed the order online. They arrived in a cooler, in kind of a matryoshka doll setup: the truffles are in a napkin inside a plastic sleeve inside a paper sack inside a styrofoam cooler inside a cardboard box. As for my truffle tools, I did buy a mandoline, but after reading rather graphic reviews I was too terrified to use it without a No-Slice rubber body suit. Luckily, I found a small sharp paring knife (I have small hands!) to be the perfect tool for dealing with the truffles (both for cutting and shaving).

Finally, onto the Menu:

Truffle salad with frisee, haricots verts, tarragon, endives, fennel (seasoned with truffle sea salt, Meyer lemon juice, and white truffle oil). Blanch haricots verts for no more than 2 minutes.

Truffle sandwiches on sourdough (I love using the 69 cent sourdough rolls from WholeFoods) with a nice layer of European-style butter and truffle sea salt. You can stick the bread slices in the toaster oven for 30 seconds, if you like the sensation of eating warm bread.


Fresh WholeFoods-brand asparagus & fontina ravioli served with truffles, truffle butter, and truffle sea salt.

Washington-20120203-00774Seared scallops with truffles and truffle butter on a bed of celeriac & potato puree (made with truffle butter, a touch of cream, and truffle sea salt) -– perfect for a pesceterian or meat eater! I prefer a 50/50 celeriac to potato ratio, in order to keep the mashed vegetable flavors subtle. Make a slit in the middle of the scallop, and insert a truffle slice prior to cooking (1-2 min on each side on high, depending on the size of the scallops).

Cheese course: Sottocenere (truffled cow’s milk cheese with an ash rind), or/and Cacio al Tartufo (sheep's milk cheese with truffle sprinkles)

And for dessert - you guessed it – truffles, in my case, purchased from Cocova (formerly known as Biagio Fine Chocolates). There is a very wide variety of exquisite individual truffles for $2 each. Have them box it up for you, get on one knee, and present Her with a little cute box…

P.S. In case you did not use up all of your truffles, in the morning you can share a soft-poached egg with truffles, and a fresh ricotta and truffle honey toast with your coffee.

Hello! My Name Is Pinot Noir

If your New Year’s Resolution is to be a little bit less afraid of wine, this post is for you. You should also keep reading if you are stuck in a rut, afraid of leaving your cozy oenophilic comfort zone. Do you always find yourself asking for a glass of California Cab (or Zinfandel, or Pinot Grigio - insert your default choice here)? There is an amazing world out there waiting to be explored!

A big part of the fun is getting to know the grape personalities. Spicy, brooding, animalistic Syrah; juicy, fun Grenache; flowery, sensual Viognier… I am personally very fond of Pinot Noir, - the fickle, elegant grape with fantastic food affinity and beguiling aromatics, which comes to the pinnacle of its expression in Burgundy, France.

Old vinesJust like with learning a new language, there are some basics that you need to get out of the way first, such as the framework for explaining what you like or do not like about a certain wine. Even more importantly for foodies, you will need it to understand and describe the relationship between food and wine. Let’s take a look at a couple of those concepts.


Washington-20120116-00676I think of acidity as a flavor sparkplug. Ever thought about why you put lime and lemon juice on your food and even in your beer? It is the so-called “strategic” use of acidity: it makes food taste better, more focused. That is precisely why restauranteurs love crisp, clean, acidic wines. Acidity in wine helps to stimulate your appetite by setting your digestion into motion and it also helps to break down the fattiness in the food you eat (the same way we use the acidity in vinegar or citrus to marinate different foods). It creates a magic chain reaction of wanting a little more food, then a little more wine, then a little more food… you get the idea. It is useful to remember that higher acidity is typically found in wines that come from a cooler climate, as grapes do not get physiologically mature as quickly and do not get as ripe as in the warmer parts of the world.

New World vs. Old World

The term "New World" wine is used, quite literally, to describe wines from New World wine producing countries, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, etc. If we look at the statistics of what people are drinking in this country, we will see that sales of reds are dominated by bigger, fruit-forward wines that taste of sweet oak and ripe fruit. Whites include plush Chardonnays and other wines that tend to have a touch of sweetness to them. In general, the New World is dominated by international varietals (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc.).

Old-World wine-making has a different philosophy: it is about subtle, earthy, mineral flavors that make one focus more on the place where the wine was made, and less on the grape. Terroir is a word that gets thrown around a lot (and also happens to be the name of my favorite wine bar in NYC :-)); it is used to describe the unmistakable sense of “placeness”, unique soil composition, climate, etc. of the wine’s birthplace.

There are definitely proponents of both styles out there as demonstrated by global wine sales. Neither one is necessarily more valid than the other; it is a matter of individual taste. I personally have a preference for European wines for several reasons. First, because I like my wines “lean and mean” (as opposed to the “friendly”, easy-to-quaff wines of the New World). Second, because I find a great deal more values in the $12-20 price range among European wines (which is what I typically spend on a bottle of wine, and I always look for more flavor bang for my buck). And last but not least, because oaky, alcoholic, and fruity New World wines are on average less food-friendly and versatile; it is hard for them to stand up to the more zingy, complex flavors I enjoy so much. On the other hand, I find that earthy, highly acidic Old-World wines set me up for a high pleasure payoff with a wider variety of foods.


Depending on your personality, feel free to dive in and enjoy the wild ride, or build a solid wine foundation step by step:

  • You should consider taking a class at the Capital Wine School.Too few people know that they have the expertise of Master of Wine Jay Youmans right here in DC (Master Sommelier and Master of Wine are the two highest and most recognized certifications in the world. The "Wine Basics" and the "Essential Wine Tasting Skills" classes are perfect if you are looking for "the big picture" perspective. Jay's classes are fun, informal, and unpretentious.
  • Most quality restaurants understand that the dining experience is incomplete without wine, and work hard to create food & wine pairing “magic moments”. Part of that process is putting together an exciting but reasonably priced wine list and training the staff to be able to pass the excitement on to the consumer. Cork, Grapeseed, and Dino are just a few of my local favorites that boast nice by-the-glass programs (and offer other formats such as flights, 3oz pours, wine madness) that make it easy for anyone to try something new without taking out a second mortgage.
  • For “do-it-yourselfers”, I recommend two of my favorite wine books written by women who are incredibly passionate about wine and equally passionate about sharing their wine knowledge. “Wine Bible” by Karen McNeal is a collection of compelling stories about grapes, winemakers, and terroirs. “Great Tastes Made Simple” by Andrea Immer contains practical advice on how to get started with food & wine tastings at home. Both were extremely inspirational for me, as I was getting started in the wine world, and I had the privilege of meeting both of them in person at Saveur Magazine events. (Actually, one of the biggest inspirations was Andrea Immer’s son Lucas who asked his Mom for smoked duck for his 8th birthday :-)).

My last piece of advice to you: whatever mode of exploration you end up choosing, remember not to take wine too seriously. Cheers!

WineP.S. Be sure to check out Magic Moments 101 for some food & wine tasting ideas!

CulinAerie Knife Skills Class Sharpens Dull Skills

Image004 Do you know how to use a vegetable peeler?

Sure you do. I bet it was the first kitchen tool you learned to use. Simple, oddly shaped blade, plastic handle, no big deal, right? It's as straightforward and simple an instrument as you’ll find in your kitchen.

Turns out, it’s not so simple. There’s actually a right way and a wrong way, just as there’s a right way and a wrong way to hold tongs, grasp a spoon and use a chef’s knife.

Susan Holt knows how to use a vegetable peeler. Holt is a former chef and graduate of L'Academie de Cuisine, where she’s taught for the past decade. Today, she’s teaching at CulinAerie, the District cooking school she opened with fellow L'Academie de Cuisine graduate Susan Watterson.

On an recent Saturday morning, Susan was using all those years of teaching and professional cooking to teach me and a couple dozen other amateur cooks how to use a vegetable peeler. The peeler was the first – and certainly least pointy – lesson of Susan’s Knife Know How class, but it wasn't the last.

“Use the steel every five minutes.”

Yes, chef.

“Dicing is uniform. Chopping is not.”

Yes, chef.

“Don’t scrape the blade of your knife across the cutting board. You’ll ruin the blade.”

Yes, chef.

“Go with the grain, not against the grain.”

Yes, chef.

“Utility knives are useless.”

Yes, chef.

“The worst thing you can do is use little motions. Be fearless.”

Yes, chef.

“Did you hear those bones crack?”

Yes, chef, we did.

Image021 And so it went for the four-hour course that began with a review of kitchen knives and ended with a glass of wine and meal. In between were lessons on holding a knife properly, julienning, trussing, supreming, breaking down a chicken and what do with all of it: make lunch.

Our class started early (well, early for some of us). Fortunately, Susan ran the class at an easy pace and she and her staff were hands-on, offering assistance, such as when Frenching a chicken wing proved to be more difficult than it looked.

The course is ideal for amateur cooks, regardless of how long you've been pursuing your hobby. The knife Image042 is the most basic of kitchen tools and certainly the most important. At the very least, the class will teach you how to work more efficiently. At most, you’ll be less likely to lose a digit.

I’ve cooked for years, so I’m pretty comfortable with my knives. I keep them sharp (Yes, chef, the steel, always the steel) and work at a pretty good clip. Not Hung fast, but not bad.

Turns out, I’ve been doing it wrong. I don’t hold my knife right. I don’t hold the product correctly. I rush when I should slow down. On occasion, I might even use little cutting motions.

In other words, I needed instruction.

Fair enough. I can swallow my pride and learn the right way to use a knife, particularly when I swallow it with sautéed chicken in cream sauce (see recipe below). After going over proper knife techniques, the class paired up and cooked what they cut up (Thank god biology class never ended this way). A cooking lesson thrown in with the knife class, and wine to boot.

And considering that I now have a better chance of keeping my fingers attached, the course was a rousing success.

1131 14th St., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20005
(202) 236-6111

Image054 Chicken with Grainy Mustard, Cream and Tarragon

4 pieces chicken on the bone (breasts and/or legs and thigh quarters)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tbs. vegetable or canola oil
1 medium onion, peeled and diced fine
1 cup white wine, such as a Burgundy-style chardonnay
2 cups chicken stock or water
3/4 cup of heavy cream
2 tbs. best-quality grainy Dijon mustard
2 tbs. fresh chopped tarragon leaves

Liberally season the chicken breasts with salt and fresh black pepper. Heat a large shallow sauté pan (not non-stick) over medium-high heat, then add the oil. Add the chicken to the pan, skin-side down, and cook for about 3 to 4 minutes, until deep golden brown. Remove from pan to a plate.

Image044 Add onion and reduce heat to low, sweating the onion, but not allowing it to take any color. Add white wine and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring and scraping up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the chicken stock or water and cream, and bring to a simmer. Return the chicken breasts to the pan, cover the pan with a lid or piece of aluminum foil, and cook over low heat 30 to 35 minutes, turning the chicken a couple of times during the cooking process.

Return the chicken to a serving dish, cover and keep warm. Bring the sauce to a boil on the stove and simmer until the sauce is reduced by about half, 5 to 10 minutes, so that it coats the back of a wooden spoon. Add the mustard, tarragon, salt to taste and black pepper. Spoon the sauce over the chicken and serve immediately with rice pilaf or egg noodles.

Last Minute DC Foodie Gifts

Twas the weekend before Christmas and all through DC, people were rushing around for gifts for their foodie.  Getting a gift card to Williams & Sonoma was out, "We want something local!" was said in a shout.  So out to the local shops they headed in a tizzy, but there were so many choices, it made their head dizzy.  But don't give up hope, don't you dare fret, a list of local store options is your safest bet! 

Co_co_sala_gift_box Co Co. Sala, which opened its doors back in June of this year, has become a favorite chocolate destination in Penn Quarter.  Known for their chocolate experiences and fabulous signature cocktails, Co Co. Sala also sells artisanal chocolates in an assortment of flavors made right on the premises.  For the chocolate lover on your list, Co Co. Sala offers gift boxes in 4, 8, 16 and (for the extreme chocoholic) 48 piece increments.  Mix and match flavors or allow Co Co. Sala to create the perfect gift box for you.  With flavors ranging from  banana ginger to chipotle, there is sure to be something to satisfy even the most adventurous chocolate fan on your list.  Gift box prices start at $10 for a four piece box. 

So chocolate isn't your foodies cup of tea?  How about cheese (who can say no to cheese)?  Cheesetique in Alexandria is one of the premiere local cheese shops in the DC metro area.  The brain child of Jill Erber, Cheesetique has expanded to now include a cheese and wine bar.  Offering a wide variety of cheeses from all over the world, Cheesetique is known for its stock of artisan cheeses.  Instead of a boring gift basket of pre-selected cheeses, Cheesetique offers a unique spin on gift giving:  the gift bucket.  A fire engine red enamel bucket is filled with cheeses, crackers, wines or whatever else tickles your fancy.  The custom gift buckets are priced based on the items you choose to fill it.

Still not finding something for the (obviously picky) foodie in your life?  Do they love to cook up fine Italian meals?  Get thee to A.Litteri in Northeast DC!  Offering everything from fresh Italian pastas to  aged Modena balsamic vinegars, A.Litteri has a huge selection of the finest ingredients from all regions of Italy.  A full deli counter sells choice meats and cheeses, including Mortadella and Parma prosciutto.  Gift certificates to A.Litteri will allow your favorite foodie to choose the truffles, pasta, olive oil or whatever other ingredients inspire them. 

Why are you still looking?  Do you mean to tell me your foodie wouldn't be happy with any of those gifts above?  Seriously?  Well do they at least like coffee?  If so, head over to the Bloomingdale neighborhood of DC for Big Bear Cafe's wonderful selection of holiday gift baskets featuring Counter Culture coffees.  Locally owned, Big Bear Cafe has become a staple in Bloomingdale.  Owners Lana Labermeier and Stuart Davenport opened the cafe after lamenting about the lack of a quality coffee shop in their neighborhood.  Since its opening in the Summer of 2007, Big Bear Cafe has created a loyal following of fellow Bloomingdale residents.  Wrapped in cellophane and tied with festive red bows, the gift baskets also come with an assortment of baked goodies and start at $20. 

Armed with this list and in a jolly good mood, their last minute shopping could all be solved with food!

Local Gift Ideas for the Cheese Lover in Your Life

With the holiday season upon us, D.C. Foodies and those who love us are looking far and wide for the perfect gifts.  But some of the best gifts for cheese lovers can be found closer to home, at local cheese shops and home furnishings stores.  Here are a few gift ideas I've found recently in and around the District:

ApartmentzeroApartment Zero in Penn Quarter has been a go-to spot for trendy and stylish furniture and home accessories since it opened in 1999, and their spacious store allows them to carry a wider range of goods than most local independent shops.  Their eye for design goes all the way down to kitchen implements, and they carry a variety of high-end implements for cheese lovers.  The stainless steel "Collective Tools" line from Iittala of Finland includes a cheese knife (pictured top) for $55 and a slicer for $45.  For those with even more expensive tastes, Pott of Germany has a line of stylized cheese knives and planes with names like Picado ($138), Formado ($172) and Raspado ($137, pictured bottom).  Apartment Zero is located at 406 7th Street, NW.  They are open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 AM to 6 PM and Sundays from 12 to 5 PM, but they are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

homebody, located across from the Marine Corps barracks that give Capitol Hill's Barracks Row its name, carries an assortment of furnishings and gift items sourced by owners Erin Mara and Henriette Fourcade.  TheyImg_3413_2 run the gamut from high-end furniture and home decor to smaller accessories and gift ideas.  One such idea immediately caught my eye as a great gift for cheese-lovers who enjoy serving their favorites to friends and family: a set of 6 cheese markers and a washable felt pen.  I own a similar set of markers (mine are shaped like cows, sheep and goats) and I frequently use them when serving new or unfamiliar cheeses to help people keep track of what they're eating.  This set offers two distinct advantages - a larger writing space (so you don't have to struggle to fit the full name of the cheese) and a generic shape that allows all six tags to be used with any kind of cheese.  The set retails for $22.50 at homebody, which is located at 715 8th Street, SE.  They are open Tuesday through Saturday 11 AM to 7 PM and Sunday 12 to 6 PM, and they are closed on Mondays.

Mouse2 Home Rule is another independently-owned and operated shop that specializes in "goods that are distinct, well-made, useful, well-priced."  They focus on well-known product lines like Simplehuman and Umbra, but they also feature a wide range of fun and playful products for the kitchen and bath.  A few of their products are even available online through their website.  That's where I found these mouse-shaped cheese graters from Christopher Raia Studio.  I couldn't help but smile when I saw the simple (but fun) design, and I was impressed that the mouse doubles as a serving bowl once you've finished grating the cheese.  At $9.99, this would make a great stocking stuffer for fun-loving cheese lovers young and old.  If you'd rather buy in store, Home Rule is located at 1807 14th Street, NW, just a few blocks south of U Street.  They are open from 11 AM to 7 PM Monday through Saturday, and 12 to 6 PM on Sundays.

Of course the most obvious gift for cheese lovers is - wait for it - cheese.  Both Cheesetique and Cowgirl Creamery offer tasting classes in their stores covering a wide range of topics.  Cheesetique tends to offer a single class on multiple evenings each month, while Cowgirl offers numerous one-shot classes. Recent classes at Cheesetique have dealt with blues, local cheeses and "stinky" washed-rind varieties.  Their current tasting focuses on "holiday" cheeses (their writeup encourages you to "Think cranberries.  Think truffles.").  At Cowgirl Creamery, recent offerings have focused on artisan cheeses from Ireland, France and American farmsteads.  Prices can vary, so your best bet is to contact the stores directly to inquire about upcoming tastings.

Local cheese shops also offer holiday cheese trays for entertaining and "cheese collections" to give asHoliday_2  gifts.  Bowers Fancy Dairy Products recommends a tray of red port-soaked cheddar and green sage derby for a festive plate.  Cheesetique is happy to help you build your own cheese platter with 4, 5, or 6 cheeses in a variety of styles.  Naturally, prices vary depending on the cheeses you select.  And Cowgirl Creamery's website offers a "Holiday Cheese Board" featuring three American artisan cheeses: Uplands Farm Pleasant Ridge, Cowgirl Creamery's own MT TAM, and Colston Bassett Stilton (pictured).  This collection of cheeses, which retails for $68 online, makes a great gift or a ready-made cheese board for entertaining.

If you're stuck for a specific gift idea (or if you're just tired of giving a bottle of wine every time you visit a friend's house), consider a gift certificate to a local cheese shop.  They are available in a range of denominations, and they allow the recipient to treat himself or herself to something they might not otherwise buy.  Were it not for a gift certificate to Cheesetique, my wife and I might never have tried Cassina Rossa's Truffle & Salt, a decadent blend of sea salt and black truffles that adds an earthy richness to risotto and pasta dishes.

Whenever possible, we like to shop local, independent businesses like these (with the exception of Cowgirl Creamery, though its founders ARE locals).  They offer interesting and eclectic selections that frequently reflect the personal taste and style of the store owner, and they are a great way to learn about designers and product lines that may not be carried in larger chains. 

I've tried to include suggestions for a range of budgets and tastes, but the best advice I can give you is to go out and look for yourself - take advantage of the opportunities that living in and around Washington provides and keep an eye out for something unique.